September 2010

IBEW Fights to Uphold Red Seal Standards
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For more than half a century, the Red Seal has been a benchmark of excellence for Canadian tradesmen, serving as a national recognition of high skill and training for more than 50 different crafts.

But a new effort by the federal government to reform the program's assessment standards is drawing opposition from the building trades and many contractors, who are concerned that the proposed changes will water down the Red Seal and weaken national training standards.

For more than a year, the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship, which is made up of the heads of each provincial and territorial apprenticeship program, has been conducting a review of the Red Seal program. The council's initial recommendations—published this spring—are troubling, says Barry Stevens, political action/media strategist for the First District.

Currently, journeymen must graduate from a recognized apprenticeship program and pass a written test in order to receive Red Seal certification, which in most provinces is more demanding than the standard trade certification. But under the council's suggested guidelines, alternative assessments such as work reviews, oral interviews and employer recommendations could be accepted in lieu of a written exam, which Stevens says, opens the door to abuse by unscrupulous contractors.

"We're talking about a very vague grading system that leaves a lot up to the employer, so it would be hard to tell what you're getting with the Red Seal," he said.

The government's suggested reforms come just as the program is losing some of its power to influence the labour market. Previously, Red Seal certification was needed to work across provincial boundaries. But last year's changes to the labour mobility clause in the Agreement on Internal Trade now allows any worker certified in their own province or territory to practice their trade anywhere in Canada, even if their home jurisdiction has lower certification standards than the province in which they work.

"The effect will be to exert downward pressure on credentials, because it forces local governments that demand higher standards to accept workers far below the skill and training it calls for," said First District Vice President Phil Flemming.

The weakening of existing training standards is part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the ruling Conservatives' broader agenda to deregulate the labour market, driving down wages and working conditions, say union leaders.

"I think the Conservatives are trying to make workers and companies fight for the lowest common denominator," said Alex Lolua, director of government and public relations for the IBEW's Construction Council of Ontario.

The temporary foreign worker program is one example, Stevens says. Created in response to a national worker shortage, the program allows employers to bring in foreign nationals to work on a short-term basis, which critics charge makes them vulnerable to abuse.

"These measures were designed to enable unscrupulous employers to bring more foreign workers into the market, which would result in reducing the costs of labour at the expense of Canadian workers," he wrote in his July column for the Toronto Local 353's newsletter.

And some federal officials agree. Government documents acquired from the Canada Immigration Office by New Democrat Immigration Critic Olivia Chow states that temporary foreign workers have had a negative impact on wages and employment.

"Employers are using temporary foreign workers as a way to suppress wages and working conditions and to avoid legitimate unions," Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said in a statement. "We should be ensuring Canadians are properly trained first, so they can take advantage of existing job opportunities."

Anti-worker governments in Western Canada have also joined the campaign to drive down labour standards. Gordon Campbell's Liberal government in British Columbia has gone the furthest. Soon after taking power in 2001, that administration deregulated much of the trades, eliminating mandatory certification for many skilled jobs.

In 2007 the governments of British Columbia and Alberta signed the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Act, a trade bill which places many provincial regulations, including worker qualification tests, at risk of being declared a barrier to free trade.

Harper and corporate lobbyists have also been pushing for a free-trade agreement with the European Union—the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement—which would make it even harder for provinces to maintain their own training programs.

Labour leaders and contractors are calling on the government to maintain the Red Seal's current assessments and for the program to become the qualifying benchmark in every province—as it already is in Ontario and in many Maritime provinces—to prevent the construction industry from being flooded with a low-skilled and easily-exploitable work force.

"We want to protect and uphold our certification standards, not weaken them in order to bring in less-skilled foreign workers to fill those positions," said Wayne Peppard, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Building Trades.

Lolua of the Construction Council of Ontario points to the work of the National Electrical Trade Council—a joint labor-management partnership between the IBEW and the Canadian Electrical Contractors Association—in developing national electrical training standards which could encourage labour mobility while maintaining a highly-trained work force.

"Without mandated national standards, workers and contractors will end up on a downward spiral," Peppard said.